Phila. Lawyers Secure $31 Million N.J. Jury Award (The Legal Intelligencer)October 20, 2008
By Amaris Elliott-Engel
Philadelphia lawyers secured a more than $31 million verdict Friday in Camden County Superior Court for an 18-year-old client who lost his leg following a car accident on a road they said the county had failed to maintain.
An eight-member jury awarded plaintiff Nicholas Anderson $15 million in future medical costs, $15 million in past and future pain and suffering, disability and loss of enjoyment of life and $1,295,007.57 in past medical costs, finding the Camden County government liable, attorneys for Anderson said.
Judge John A. Fratto presided over the case.
Anderson, then 18, was driving on Raritan Avenue near the intersection of Third Street in Atco, Camden County, Dec. 23, 2004, before his accident, according to the complaint in Anderson v. County of Camden. Anderson's accident resulted in his left leg being amputated and serious injuries to his left arm and right leg, according to a police report attached to the complaint.
Anderson's four-door Subaru went onto the roadway's shoulder, where there was a drop-off between the asphalt part of the shoulder and the adjacent dirt and gravel, the complaint said.
Plaintiff contended that because of the drop-off Anderson lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a guardrail that the county allegedly failed to take care of, according to the complaint.
Plaintiffs attorney John M. Dodig of Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock & Dodig said in an interview that a vehicle was coming in the opposite lane of travel and caused Anderson to swerve onto the shoulder.
"It was our position that the pavement edge drop and a dangerous guardrail caused Nick's injuries," Dodig said. "It was our position that the county of Camden knew for 20 years about the dangerous condition of the guardrail and did nothing about it."
According to the police report, Anderson could not be interviewed at the time of his accident because of his condition. The report said it appeared that Anderson lost control of his vehicle, slid off the roadway and crashed into a guardrail on the south side of the road. Anderson's vehicle came to rest in a ditch, the report said.
Co-counsel Jason A. Daria, also of Feldman Shepherd, did half the work of the case, Dodig said.
Camden County was represented by Assistant County Counsel Donna M. Whiteside.
"We are certainly aware of and deeply sympathetic to Mr. Anderson because of the injuries he suffered," Ken Shuttleworth, director of public affairs, said in a statement. "However, a verdict such as this would impose a serious burden on county taxpayers. The county therefore intends to seek all appropriate legal remedies including appeal."
"We believe we have appropriate insurance to protect the interest of taxpayers," Ron Tomasello, with Camden County's Public Affairs office, added later.
The county has a self-insured retention limit of $300,000 and an excess policy of $15 million, Dodig said.
The county offered its $300,000 retention limit, but the excess policy carrier didn't make an offer, Dodig said.
At this point, Dodig said that there is no high-low agreement.
According to the county's answer, the county "breached no duty owed to plaintiffs." The county also said in its answer it was either Anderson's negligence or the negligence of a third party that resulted in Anderson's accident. The county also argued that the New Jersey Tort Claims Act barred Anderson's cause of action.
The jury found that the road was dangerous because of the change in elevation between the road and the shoulder and because of a guardrail, according to the verdict sheet.
The jury also found that those dangerous road conditions created a foreseeable risk of injury to the plaintiff and that Camden County's failure to fix the road conditions was palpably unreasonable, according to the verdict sheet.
Dodig said they called county witnesses and cross-examined county witnesses to illuminate the Camden County policy of not fixing guardrails until they are upgraded during safety projects or until hit during accidents.
The county's defense theory was that the county did not have liability, that Anderson was contributorily negligent and that Anderson made up a story about the oncoming vehicle, Dodig said.
The jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours following a two-week trial, Dodig said.
Anderson's past medical care totals $1.2 million, and his future life care plan is estimated at $8 million, Dodig said.